Culture, No.5  Feb. 6, 2011


INTERVIEWER On June 13 last year the asteroid explorer Hayabusa returned to Earth seven years after its launch. The spacecraft itself was consumed in flames as it made its reentry, but it delivered its precious capsule safely to the ground. Many Japanese were deeply moved by this accomplishment. I am sure there were many difficulties involved in the project, but could I ask you each to cite the three most difficult points you experienced?

KAWAGUCHI JUN’ICHIRŌ The first was the touchdown on and takeoff from the asteroid Itokawa. The second was late in 2005, as Hayabusa headed away from Itokawa and back toward Earth, when we lost communications with the spacecraft and didn’t know where it was. The third was when its ion-propulsion engines died while the mission was still in progress.

The pressure was especially great at the time of the touchdown and takeoff from the asteroid. The deadline for starting the return trip to Earth was approaching, but it was hard to estimate when a touchdown would be possible. Interested observers were expecting it to happen promptly, but we weren’t sure when and if it would be possible.

When we lost communications, matters were out of our hands. We made an announcement about what had happened, and so the level of pressure was relatively lower.

Then, when the ion-propulsion engines went dead, I figured it might be the end of the story. Since the spacecraft was only seven months away from its scheduled return to Earth, I also felt a sense of frustration that this was happening after it had already traveled so far.

MATOGAWA YASUNORI I’d like to cite difficulties we experienced in getting the project off the ground. First, what I found to be the most difficult was our dealings with NASA [the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration]. We needed to work together with NASA but at the same time to keep them from grabbing the content from us. The hardest part was coming up with ideas for the project. I think Kawaguchi’s abilities were a tremendous plus at that stage.

The second big difficulty was getting approval from the Space Activities Commission. The project was being considered in the mid-1990s, several years after the bursting of the bubble economy, and conditions were quite harsh.

Third was the actual launch of the spacecraft. Even the best of rockets will fail one time out of twenty. The previous launch of the M-V rocket being used for MUSES-C [the official name of Hayabusa] had failed, and so there was some worry. So there were some major hurdles on the way to getting the spacecraft into the sky.

INTERVIEWER What is NASA like as a competitor?

KAWAGUCHI Oh, we’re not competing with NASA. That would be way beyond us. What we’ve always felt toward NASA is the hope that it won’t “cut all the grass,” so to speak. NASA can do anything if it’s determined to do so, and so we’re in the position of saying, “This is an original idea we came up with, so will you let us handle it?”

In order to win NASA’s agreement, we’ve taken an approach that involves what you might call bartering–making proposals that will also benefit NASA and operating under a cooperative setup. As long as it’s a joint undertaking, we don’t have to worry about them walking off with the goods. You could say that preventing such an outcome is the reason for implementing projects on a joint basis.

MATOGAWA In the case of Hayabusa, we initially proposed that it carry NASA’s mini-rover planetary explorer. In the end that didn’t happen, because NASA halted development of the mini-rover, but I think it was a very good thing to make that proposal.

KAWAGUCHI We’re now at the stage of having to make the same sort of efforts for the proposed Hayabusa 2. We’ve already revealed our hand, so to speak, with regard to asteroid probes with the first Hayabusa, so it’s possible that NASA will say, “We’ll do the next mission ourselves.” We need to persuade the Americans to undertake the project jointly again.

MATOGAWA People used to say that Japan’s ISAS [Institute of Space and Astronautical Science] was very similar to NASA’s JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory]. Of course the JPL has a longer history and greater strength, so our ISAS is in no position to compete directly with it. But the people there apparently formed a favorable impression of the ISAS, and through the 1980s or so the personal ties between the two organizations were excellent. But then there were some occasional little spats, and the JPL, having gotten scratched, responded by skimming various things off of the ISAS. That was the situation when the MUSES-C project was being planned, so I’m sure it must have been quite difficult in some ways. What I believe made it possible to overcome the hurdles was Kawaguchi’s spirit of “I want to do this, whatever it takes”–his “greed,” if you will.

KAWAGUCHI Professor Matogawa has said that I’m bad at giving up.

MATOGAWA I said you hated to lose.

KAWAGUCHI No, on TV you actually said I was “bad at giving up.” [Laughs]

INTERVIEWER Is that sort of “greed” a tradition at the ISAS?

MATOGAWA The institute could be described as a group of people unfamiliar with ordinary human society–though you won’t find many as far from the norm as Itokawa Hideki, the founding father of what later became the ISAS.

KAWAGUCHI I’d say it’s true that everybody in our institute is on the unusual side. In that sense we’re carrying on a tradition of sorts.

MATOGAWA If you start evaluating yourself according to the norms of ordinary society, you lose your “greed” and can no longer keep up the power required to achieve breakthroughs.

KAWAGUCHI Ordinary evaluators look for shortcomings. And those subject to that sort of evaluation try to be everything to everybody; they quickly lose their distinctiveness.

When you make senbei [rice crackers] in a mold, there’s some overflow that remains as thin crispy bits on the edge, called mimi [crust]. It’s generally considered something superfluous that can be cut off. But if you try to keep the mixture entirely within the mold, you end up making the senbei smaller and smaller. So the mimi bits are actually essential.

The overflow is crucial, but people have lost sight of this fact. I think it’s partly due to the educational system. Instead of trying to extend the distinctive elements, the focus is all on how to correct the shortcomings.

MATOGAWA I heard of a major survey in which people were asked to identify the period of their lives in which they changed the most. Apparently the average reply was fifth grade of elementary school. What this change means is the emergence of ideas that shape people’s future course, like, “I want to help others,” “I want to get ahead in the world, even if I have to push others aside,” or “I want to be rich.” Apparently once these ideas get formed, they just keep getting stronger. So somebody my age who’s mean has probably been mean ever since fifth grade. [Laughs]

Parents nowadays think of elementary school as just being preparation for junior high school. So children end up thinking that way too. And they try to extend their abilities only within a very narrow framework. They’re not conscious of being in the most important formative period of their lives. We need to raise children who can develop big ambitions while they are still in elementary school.

KAWAGUCHI It would be fine if that were possible, but telling children to be ambitious sounds rather like telling them to experience setbacks. Adults may be unsure of their own ability to take responsibility for the possible results. But I’d like to see our society become one in which this idea could come true.

I’d say the ambitions don’t have to be big. Small ambitions are all right too. Or rather than “small” perhaps I should say “different from other people’s.” I’d like to see a society in which assessments aren’t based on whether people fit in well with others, one where it’s okay to go off the beaten track.

Private-Sector Involvement

INTERVIEWER The Hayabusa project included technicians from private-sector firms. Did they have the same mind-set as the people from within JAXA [Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the parent organization of the ISAS]?

KAWAGUCHI This project involved cooperation among industry, academia, and the government, and people talk about manufacturers winning high appraisals. But as far as I was concerned there were no dividing lines, so I was actually taken aback to see this point being raised.

MATOGAWA At the ISAS, once a team is formed, there’s no distinction made among the members by affiliation. They all think of each other as comrades.

In the past people from manufacturers felt that way strongly, and they’d often argue with the project manager, making comments like, “I can’t accept that,” or “I can’t take responsibility for working on that basis.” Nowadays both those from the manufacturers and those from the ISAS are considerably less outspoken, but apparently there were quite a few members of the Hayabusa project who would have liked to knock the wind out of the project manager’s sails. Of course I’m sure Kawaguchi did a good job of providing leadership.

INTERVIEWER Was there anything you paid particular attention to as project manager?

KAWAGUCHI In any sort of project, not just ones involving rockets, there’s a limit to how far you can go with the quest for the optimal solution. At some point you have to compromise. If there are multiple solutions to the problem, it is probably all right to use any of them. This is something I learned from former ISAS Director General Matsuo Hiroki.

Also, though it may take an expert to come up with the optimal solution, even non-experts can offer valuable suggestions. Many of the ideas adopted for Hayabusa came from people without specialized knowledge of the field in question.

MATOGAWA I wasn’t there to see what was actually going on, but my guess is that Kawaguchi was quick to dismiss opinions from veteran members of the team. That makes younger members feel encouraged to speak up and offer their own ideas.

It’s not easy to praise him to his face [laughs], but Kawaguchi, despite his appearance of great forcefulness, was able to create an atmosphere conducive to the free exchange of opinions. That was great.

A successful mission is the top priority. The key issue is whether you can get everybody to share this sentiment regardless of rank, age, or position. In the case of Hayabusa, the use of ion-propulsion engines meant that calculating the orbit was especially difficult, and the figures had to be checked and rechecked daily. When I talked about this with the people from NEC [which played a major role in the project], they told me that when they went to Kawaguchi to seek his judgment, he would give them prompt, clear decisions. An ordinary project manager would probably not have been able to do that.

KAWAGUCHI But I’m sure a lot of the people around me were actually fuming at me inside their heads. [Laughs]

MATOGAWA Hayabusa returned on June 13 last year, and the following day the Japanese national soccer team led by head coach Okada Takeshi won its first game in the group league competition at the World Cup in South Africa. The Hayabusa project and the national soccer team actually had some key points in common: first of all, an unwavering leader and, second, each member’s commitment of their total mental and physical capabilities for the sake of the team. These two were major pillars. A third point in common was that they tackled their challenges with an extremely small force–though in the case of Hayabusa one might say “an extremely small budget.” And fourth, both showed that for all the complaints about “young people today,” they’re capable of exerting great strength if given a stage on which to do so.

KAWAGUCHI But that third item wasn’t a condition for success. It was just something we had to accept.

MATOGAWA It’s true, however, that people exert greater strength when they have to work within a moderately constrained budget. If you’re rolling in money you can’t tap that sort of strength.

KAWAGUCHI There was nothing “moderate” about the constraints on our budget. (Laughs)

The Personification of Hayabusa
INTERVIEWER A lot of the people who were rooting for Hayabusa seemed to think of it as a living, thinking being. Would you say this personification was largely because it was a round-trip mission?

KAWAGUCHI The return to Earth was certainly one major feature. Another was the fact that the spacecraft included autonomous portions. This may be hard to grasp for people who weren’t involved in the actual operations, but when communicating with Hayabusa there was a sense that we weren’t just transmitting data, that there was something more than that going on. When we reestablished communications after the blackout, the connection was spotty, so we tried using “single-bit transmission,” meaning that the spacecraft would turn its beacon on or off to reply yes or no. At that time we felt something almost human in Hayabusa.

It’s scary to think how people would have responded if the mission had failed just before Hayabusa returned to Earth. We probably would have been roundly scolded, and it wouldn’t have been possible to plan for Hayabusa 2.

INTERVIEWER People would have blamed you for failing after spending a tremendous amount of money.

KAWAGUCHI In the case of planetary probes, you only get to build one prototype. Would a business ever try to get by that way? No, they’d make one, and if there was something wrong with that, they’d make another, repeating the process till they got it right. So expecting a planetary explorer to succeed after making just one model is inherently unreasonable. I’d like people to keep this in mind when they pass judgment on the success or failure of missions.

MATOGAWA Professor Itokawa didn’t use the word “failure.” Instead of thinking of success and failure as opposites, he took each failure as a step on the way to success. If you can figure out the cause of the failure, your chances of succeeding the next time become much higher. So it’s better not to toss around the words “success” and “failure” lightly. Instead of labeling the Hayabusa mission a success, it’s more accurate to say that the spacecraft was able to return to Earth.

KAWAGUCHI If Hayabusa had failed to return, we probably would have been labeled unskilled, and I doubt we would have been able to do any asteroid sampling for the foreseeable future. People aren’t ready to say, “You made it half the way last time; it’s all right if you make it all the way on the next try.”

Back in 1996 the European Space Agency launched its first Ariane 5 rocket, but it exploded shortly after takeoff. Even so, the Europeans didn’t call for the program to be halted. The overwhelming majority took the view that a single failure was only to be expected.

MATOGAWA I heard that the day after the failed launch the head of one of the European organizations involved went to the beach for a swim. “How can you go swimming after yesterday’s failure?” he was asked, to which he replied, “It was the first launch. This sort of thing happens.” In Japan somebody who made a remark like that could expect to get bashed for lacking proper discretion.

INTERVIEWER What was the response like from the media and acquaintances in other countries after the return of Hayabusa?

KAWAGUCHI When I addressed COSPAR [Committee on Space Research] and the IAC [International Astronautical Congress] the applause went on and on, and JAXA President Tachikawa Keiji also drew applause when he spoke about Hayabusa at the IAA [International Academy of Astronautics] summit of space agency heads. But I actually don’t welcome that question. I think the idea of asking how other countries are responding arises from the lack of well-defined yardsticks in the Japanese media and Japanese society as a whole. If we had confidence in our own standards, we wouldn’t worry about other countries’ evaluations.

MATOGAWA These days the only ones who can offer absolute appraisals are researchers and engineers, not the media.

Great Benefits from the Space Program

INTERVIEWER Professor Kawaguchi, I understand your next challenge is IKAROS [standing for “Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun”], which was launched last year.

KAWAGUCHI What we are attempting with IKAROS is a combination of two types of propulsion: photon propulsion using the pressure from sunlight on a sail and ion-propulsion engines using electric power from thin-film solar batteries. We were quite concerned whether it would actually be possible to deploy the sail in space. Deployment took place successfully on June 10 last year, just three days before the return of Hayabusa, but in the period just before that I was worried what might happen if we failed both with the sail deployment and with getting Hayabusa to bring its capsule back to Earth. (Laughs) The chance of failure was certainly not low.

MATOGAWA The budget for this project is about one-tenth of what it ordinarily takes to operate a satellite probe. The people of the next generation after Kawaguchi’s are working really hard on it. This idea of using a solar battery sail is highly original, and I hope they’ll keep up the good work.

KAWAGUCHI We had the person responsible for the IKAROS project work on the Hayabusa operating team to gain experience, but since it was successful, he may not have learned much. The key is how much you can retain from the hardships you encounter. Of course that doesn’t mean failure is acceptable. That’s what makes it difficult.

INTERVIEWER What do you say to people who suggest that the huge amounts of money appropriated for space development would be better used to provide more generous pensions or welfare or who ask what use space is?

KAWAGUCHI When you say a project costs 25 billion yen, for example, that may sound like a tremendous sum. But if it’s a ten-year undertaking, the cost for the nation comes out to 25 yen per person per year. Hayabusa took fifteen years, so the amount comes out a bit lower than that. If you consider that this amount of money can pique the interest of children and young people, I don’t think anybody can object to the spending. And of course there are many technologies that have emerged from the space program and that are now finding applications elsewhere. These can serve as a driving force in a wide range of fields, including information technology, materials, chemistry, and electronics. I’d like people to keep these ripple effects in mind.

MATOGAWA Hayabusa provided encouragement for people fighting illnesses, and it made children dream of space-related careers. In the future I’m sure there will be people who look back and say, “I became a scientist because of Hayabusa.” Space development can affect everything. If you consider the long term, nothing could be more useful. People shouldn’t hope for quick profits from the space program, but I hope they’ll look at it with an eye on its potential for developing our country and our society.

Translated from “‘Hayabusa’ no kaikyo o jidai ni tsunageru tame ni,” Chūō Kōron, March 2011, pp. 70-77. (Courtesy of Chūō Kōron Shinsha) [March 2011]